How to gently give kids feedback

Over at McAllister, we have already made the drawings for their animation project. That means we have about 45 illustrations floating around, from 3 second grade classes.

We’re doing the preliminaries before winter break, and then we’ll do the animating afterwards.They’re going to make two different stories in between them.

On the first day of illustrating, looking over the kids’ shoulders, one drawing in particular was sloppy. She was supposed to be drawing a messy garage, so I guess the sloppiness was in the spirit of the ‘messy garage’, except you couldn’t even really tell that’s what it was. I wasn’t sure if that was the best she could do, or if she had just splattered down colors haphazard out of carelessness.

So when she told me, “I’m done,” I suggested back, “well, why don’t you also draw a car for the garage?”

That’s when she pointed confidently at a blob, and said, “that’s the car right there.”

I was a little afraid if I kept pushing, she might start crying … like, “what do you mean you can’t tell what I drew?” Or maybe she would throw up her hands and say, “I don’t care! I don’t want to do this anymore!” I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say in the gentlest way possible, either, but I sat down beside her and made an outline of a garage and a car on another sheet of paper. Then I added some boxes in the corner of the garage, and we agreed we should add some tools. Eventually, she said: “I like that, can I use yours?”

So she was really welcoming of the help, after all. She added a fence, and then I sketched in paint cans. And then the kid beside us, who was also really sweet, helped her to spell “paint” on the paint cans. Then I said, “what else does the picture need?” hoping the girl would say, “color.” But they thought I was still talking about the paint cans, so the boy said, “they need handles.” They were going for all the details! So we added handles on the paint cans, and then the boy leaned over and add smears of paint along the top of the cans! They were both really cute helping each other.

I guess it was a bit of an iffy situation; maybe the girl’s reaction could have been very different. But in this case, I think she really appreciated the extra help. And although I like to say that the kids do all the work on these projects – this is the first time I remember helping with a drawing – I think this was okay to just provide a boost up.

Animations with kids – pond algae

Animations with kids is going really well! The “Butterfly Story” is on hold for the moment, because due to scheduling, I’ve over at McAllister Elementary for the time being.

But the last time I was with the butterfly kids, in a new classroom, we at least came up with the title for that story. It’s to be dubbed, “All about butterflies.”

The kids at McAllister have come up with a title for their pond algae story, too, a rather inventive one. “Mr. Glump at the Poisonous Pond.” There is a Mr. Glump in their story, and he is quite an unsavory character. But one kid exclaimed: no, no! Can’t we make the title sound happy?

But the story itself is not really that happy. The same kid asked why there wasn’t a happy ending. I showed them pictures of the big red tide that swept Florida earlier this year. “Ewwwww!” said all the kids. I asked, when do you all think this algal bloom happened?

“100 summers ago? 10,000 years ago? 30 years ago? 100 years ago!”

So I had to tell them that it had happened THIS year, and that algae is a problem today. I was trying to explain why there’s not much of a happy ending.

I had the kids staring wide-eyed, open-mouthed at me. It was the same in both McAllister classes who are doing this story. I remember being their age, when you still think that responsible adults run the world, and that these responsible adults don’t let bad things happen. On the one hand, I feel a little guilty to be wrecking their innocence; but on the other hand, there’s still a lot of action and civic engagement in our stories, so I hope this learning process is a healthy and constructive one.

We had a lot of other title suggestions shouted out: “Call it Mr. Meanie-Mouth,” one kid suggested, referring to Mr. Glump. Another: it should be called “Mr. Glump doesn’t know how to listen to people.”

What’s really cool about this story it allowed me to I teach them about the Periodic Table of Elements, Nitrogen and Phosphorus, phytoplankton, the ocean food chain, and the role that rain plays in washing pollution on land into the water, within 50 minutes. All while also reading the “Mr. Glump” story and watching “Mr. Turtle Gets Sick“, so that they can familiarize themselves with the project. And we looked at a map of the US/Canada/Mexico, and found North Carolina, Florida, and the Chesapeake Bay (usually, the kids don’t even know where our home state is.)

And I even explained how once an algal bloom dies, it sucks oxygen out of the water as it decays. And that’s why fish die. They were very sad about this picture of fish dying. Again, there was that innocence: responsible adults are actually allowing there to be so much pollution that fish die from it? What?

And I told them how scientists can go out and scoop up water samples, and then measure the pollutants in the water in their laboratories, and that every single one of them can have that job when they grow up. I showed them a female scientist in action by a river.

The question with lots of enthusiastic response was: so if scientists scoop up water and measure the pollution, but algal blooms like the ones in Florida still happen, does it seem like anyone is listening to scientists?

Noooo!!!! came the chorus. Kids are so cute.

But ultimately — though of course I don’t know how long the feeling will last — I have now 30 second-graders at this school thinking that science is great, if their response is a way to gauge, and that scientists should be listened to. It’s not actually super-hard if you present science in a human, emotional way, rather than a rigid, competitive, ugly way.

Well, maybe I should hold that thought. Who knows what these kids will think in the future.

Oh, one more awesome thing that came up with one of the classes. The kids noticed that phosphorus is represented by a ‘P’ in the Periodic Table, but its first sound is ‘ffff’. So we even got to talk about phonetic sounds.

Same thing when we got to “phytoplankton”: why’s it start with a ‘p’? they ask.

I remembered at that moment that ‘phyto’ is a prefix; so I told them some of these words came from the Ancient Greek (is that right? or do I have the wrong ancient language?) and that’s why they’re spelled ‘ph’. They looked at me a little skeptical, like, what is Greek? Well, we didn’t have time to go into it.

And then I thought I’d sound really smart and tell them that ‘phyto’ means ‘light’ in ancient Greek. But I just looked it up and apparently it means ‘plant’. Shucks.

Student evaluations

Someone told me that I should do evaluations of these projects, to gauge the effect of the kids’ attitudes on science and computers. So this is what I came up with:

scicomm student evaluations

Nice and straight-forward for my itty-bitty second-graders.

I actually forgot to do this with my first class at Irvin Elementary. But then, after we did a really great lesson on animation, I asked them, “so what do you all think about computers? What do you all think about science?”

I got huge smiles and huge shouts of “fun” back. So too bad I didn’t do a pre-evaluation of their thoughts! But I will at least do a post-evaluation, and I remembered to do the pre-evaluation with the second Irvin class. I told them, you can be honest, you won’t hurt my feelings at all. I got responses all over the place. It will be cool to compare to the post-evaluation.

Animations with kids

Yesterday and today, I visited a classroom at a local school. It was really great. We haven’t started animating yet or anything, or even illustrating.

But we read our story (about butterflies) and talked about life cycles. One kid got carried away and after we talked about caterpillars morphing into butterflies, said something like, “and butterflies change back to caterpillars.” But then a little girl said “nooooooo!” and we got it all cleared up.

They know all the words they need to know: chrysalis, life cycle, etc, etc. They are really good readers, and I had them compare a butterfly and caterpillar, and one kid said, well, they don’t look at all the same, and another kid said, well, the middle part of the butterfly where the wings attach are kind of like the caterpillar. They compare, contrast, they do cause-and-effect. I think they’re great!

And we watched Mr. Turtle, twice, so the kids would know what kind of movie we want to make. They really loved it, so my heart goes out to those second-graders four years ago at Northside Elementary who made it. Wow, they are now in sixth grade!

I told my new second-graders: guess what! There’s actually an American state that has banned plastic bags (I only knew this because of where I spent the summer), and it’s the state with the most number of people, all the way out on the west coast. Any guesses which one? They guessed the United States, Mexico, Florida, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Alaska, Hawaii, and New York, and Texas, and finally we told them it was California. We pulled out a map and did a little geography lesson and showed them all the states they’d mentioned, and then they started saying: we should ban plastic bags in North Carolina, too!

Utter darlings!!

Then, I was explaining how the butterflies fly south in the winter to Mexico, and I don’t know why, but quite a few of the kids had the idea that it’s colder in Mexico than in the US. There was a big globe handy, and I told them about the equator and how the closer you are to the equator, the hotter it is. “So is there really a line around the middle of the earth?” No, there’s no real line, and no words floating around saying “equator”, either.

For some reason, we got on the subject of lava and how underwater volcanoes and ocean islands form. They were really interested in that, so I will keep it in mind for future book ideas.

I told them all to close their eyes as I read them the butterfly story, so that they could imagine what kinds of pictures to draw along with it. One kid spent the whole time telling another kid: you’re not closing your eyes! Close your eyes! You haven’t closed them!

Last but not least, I felt like I should step up to the plate, since my PhD was in satellite images, and show them images of our town of Concord back in 1985 and then in 2011. I got the images all from the huge repository hosted by Google Earth Engine and used the satellite called Landsat 5, which was launched way back in the 1980s! I think it was 1984. And it kept going until 2012. It captured almost three decades of images from all over the world. When you process satellite images, you have to pick out three “colors of light” to use, so I used #1, shortwave infrared, #2, near infrared, #3, blue. Using these three colors together is not 100% accurate as to how the earth looks, but it makes the green of the forests and the blue of the lakes pop.

As soon as I showed them the 2011 image, a kid said: I was born then!

(Gone are the days when I was startled that a kid born in 1999 is older than infancy).

Well, it was great luck that I’d chosen the year of their birth, it was totally by accident. Hearing the glad news, I said: Great! Now you can see what Concord looked like the year you were born! Immediately, a couple of kids started whispering insistently, no, no, I was born in 2010.

I told them: when I went to college, I spent the whole time studying satellite images. Suppose a desert is getting bigger year after year. With the satellite, you can watch that pattern and measure it. It’s really important to know what deserts and rivers are doing. One kid said: it would be very bad if a desert was getting bigger. I took advantage of the moment and told him: that does happen! There’s lots of places around the world where deserts are getting bigger, and it means people might not be able to grow as much food.

And that is maybe the closest we’ll get to discussing “climate change”, because apparently those words aren’t allowed in North Carolina schools, or something of the sort.

And finally I told them a couple of times that I hoped maybe they would all go to college, study about satellites, and then also help to protect the earth. Does it actually sink in when you tell kids things like this? Or do they forget everything when they start partying in the sixth grade?